Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" is a mess, but it's a gonzo, unsettling, semi-coherent, barnstorming near-masterpiece that had me glued to my seat in anticipation of witnessing how far this multi-dimensional funhouse of madness could go.
It's been three years since terrorists detonated a nuclear bomb in Texas, and America has been shut down due to renewed powers of the Patriot Act. Oil is scarce, which leaves a new oceanic power source called "Liquid Karma" the ruler of the land. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson) is a Hollywood superstar who's recently lost his memory, looking to push a screenplay he's written with his lover, porn star/talk show host Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), which foreshadows the end of the world. Also along for this ride of final days are twin brothers Roland and Ronald Tavner (Seann William Scott), Iraq vet Private Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), and a fierce warrior in the underground "Neo-Marxist" movement named Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri).
It's futile to even try and explain the plot of "Southland Tales," so consider what you've read in the above paragraph to be the loosest summarization of the film possible. Taking his sweet time following up his 2001 cult bonanza "Donnie Darko," Writer/director Kelly has returned with a creation of astonishing sprawl and bewildering intensity. If you thought "Darko" hurt your head, I would suggest bringing a helmet to observe these "Tales."
An apocalyptic political comedy of sorts, "Tales" is a Kubrickian satiric jaunt that takes few prisoners. The film imagines a gasping world where hope is lost, the government observes and controls every single thing we do, and the only way to poison this militaristic order is to run screaming head first into chaos. The mixture of anarchy and futurism delights Kelly, who heaps on a widescreen story of murder, deception, and dimensional tearing. The ambition of this beast is simply breathtaking.
That's not to say any of this makes sense. Much like "Darko," "Tales" is a story told over multiple media outlets (a graphic novel prequel seems a must read before popping in the DVD), with the feature film labeled parts IV, V, and VI in a series with a future that isn't addressed. Many of the characters were established in previous incarnations of "Tales," leaving the viewer to play catch-up with much of the movie. For some, it'll read as outrageous arrogance, but there's something about Kelly's tenacity tinkering with mysterious forces that I find irresistible, especially with the monster canvas he's given himself in "Tales."
Beyond the political nature of the film, in which Kelly comments on America with a wicked smirk, knowing we're all headed straight to hell, "Tales" could be classified more in surrealist terms: it mixes futuristic sights such as the Liquid Karma subplot and the finale set on a glowing "Megazeppelin" with the story of Roland and Ronald and their place as messianic figures. That's not to mention hordes of other twisted touches, most centered on Boxer and his mysterious past and biblical future. "Tales" comes off as a slippery David Lynch production at certain moments, basking in the ambiguity of it all while we lowly filmgoers share the burden of fitting all these pieces together. Frustratingly, those pieces don't always slide easily into place.
Radically restructured after its disastrous Cannes 2006 debut, "Tales" has the pace and reach of a film that's truncating critical characters and absent some important momentum. In a film that's overflowing with supporting parts (including Miranda Richardson, John Larroquette, Mandy Moore, Zelda Rubenstein, Kevin Smith, Nora Dunn, Bai Ling, Jon Lovitz, Amy Poehler, Christopher Lambert, Lou Pucci, Rebekah Del Rio, Will Sasso, Curtis Armstrong, and Wallace Shawn) it makes sense to see "Tales" backed into a corner as new characters pop up and are quickly shooed away. I'm still trying to figure out why the heck Janeane Garofalo appeared in a party scene at the end of the movie.
The confusion is extended to the story, which has enough Grand Canyon-sized narrative gaps to make it clear they're not part of Kelly's original design, though the hand-holding, sardonic narration by Timberlake (who also contributes a beer-soaked musical number because...well, why not) is appreciated.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1 aspect ratio) presentation of "Southland Tales" is an exceedingly vivid, colorful affair that only runs into trouble when exhibiting the limited budget offered to the special effects. Black levels are consistent and detail is superb.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix does an excellent job bringing the listener deep into the paranoid world of the movie, offering an intricate audio field of sound effects, scoring, and soundtrack selections from Moby. Dialogue is presented clearly, but the best moments of the film are the dreamlike passages the DVD replicates wonderfully.
"USIDent TV: Surveilling the Southland" (34 minutes) assumes the appearance of a USIDent computer interface, exploring the production of "Southland Tales" through BTS footage and interviews with cast and crew. It's an unusual spin on the typical promotional pap, following the movie's shoot erratically, jumping from location to location without much offered in the way of connective tissue. What's interesting here is watching Kelly at work, conversing with his actors and explaining his intentions with the film. It's not a perfect documentary, but it captures the pungent aroma of ambition quite well.
"This is the Way the World Ends" (9 minutes) is a crudely animated short film about a pair of sea creatures recalling how humans destroyed the planet. I can only imagine this brief cartoon would've held more of an impact if it didn't look like a painfully unprepared YouTube offering. Thematically, it fits, but it's a long nine minutes.
The fantastic theatrical trailer is criminally not included on the "Southland Tales" DVD, but looks at "Revolver," "Zombie Strippers," the "April Fool's Day" remake, "Gabriel," "The Tattooist," "Damages: Season 1," "Resident Evil: Degeneration," "The Nines," "The Good Night," "Cleaner," "Romance & Cigarettes," "Slipstream," "We Own the Night," and "30 Days of Night" are presented.
While "Tales" teasingly hints at a conclusion of apocalyptic proportions, it's a treat to see Kelly is dead serious with those intentions, rendering a last act buttressed by citywide violence, cocktail parties, and colossal reveals of characters finding their true purpose. "Southland Tales" is a fearless picture utterly dependent on patience and curiosity. Even for die-hard "Darko" dorks, it's a braintickler that will require careful inspection over time to sort out. For those eager for Kelly's insanity to lead them into the unknown, this feature is a gold mine of the fantastic and abstract, stuffed daringly into an audaciously entertaining and riveting package that could very well be the most polarizing moviegoing experience of the year.
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